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Onboarding new employees used to be about touring the office, meeting the team, and maybe giving out some shiny new business cards. But today, thousands of companies have embraced fully remote or hybrid work, and that means traditional onboarding just doesn’t work anymore. Now, HR specialists and team leads alike need to get a handle on remote onboarding.
In this article, we’ll explain the basics of remote onboarding — why it matters, how to plan it well, and how it can address common remote work challenges.
We’ll also share some ideas for making the most of remote onboarding, at every stage of the process. Let’s get started!
What is remote onboarding?
Every day, hundreds of thousands of people are starting new roles, settling into new companies, and taking on new responsibilities — without ever meeting their colleagues face to face.
In this landscape, the need for onboarding hasn’t gone anywhere. But it does look very different than it used to. Whether remote or in person, the basic principles of onboarding are the same. New hires need to meet their teammates, learn how they work, and get up to speed on company policies, routines, and culture.
But instead of the traditional “first day in the office,” remote employees get onboarded in the virtual spaces where they’ll actually be getting work done.
Why does onboarding matter?
Good onboarding has been shown to boost employee retention, improve engagement, and inspire people to become more dedicated, productive workers.
It’s an opportunity for hiring managers to set expectations, make sure people feel supported, and equip them with what they need to do their best work — all elements of a positive employee experience.
These findings shouldn’t be surprising. The process of settling into a new workplace is all about building relationships with colleagues, managers, and leadership. And the strongest relationships, professional or not, are built on a foundation of clear, open communication. Onboarding helps teams establish that communication, right from the first interaction.
The challenges of remote onboarding
Remote onboarding, just like the rest of remote work, does have its challenges. But you can mitigate those issues before they even arise, as long as your onboarding is carefully planned and executed.
Difficulties around remote work often fall into one of two categories: technological or interpersonal. Great remote onboarding can help teams address both kinds of challenges.
Obviously, remote work is more reliant on technology than working together in an office. If technical difficulties stop employees from communicating with one another or accessing critical information, work can literally grind to a halt. When onboarding remote hires, a technical issue can stop you in your tracks.
But you can get your teams ahead of those problems with a bit of initiative. For example, critical documents like login credentials could be moved to a secure, centralized location, or new hires could be asked to back them up in offline format.
Education is another important part of remote onboarding. Managers could record simple tutorials with a tool like Loom, then schedule a quick follow-up meeting to make sure everything is clear. This kind of coaching smooths out the tech learning curve and sets new hires up for success.
Communication issues and feelings of isolation are two common problems for remote teams, especially for those that work asynchronously with few meetings. Leaders can mitigate these issues by setting up clear parameters around communication, and making new hires aware of them on their first day.
For example, a team might require that everyone be open to messages during certain hours. Managers can also schedule a weekly social lunch hour, complete with a meal voucher, or hold regular check-ins to assess workers’ mental health. Sharing these policies should be a key part of the remote onboarding process.
The remote onboarding process
How a company approaches remote onboarding will vary immensely depending on its team, company structure, and industry. For example, security clearances and background checks might be critical to one company’s process, while another could be focused on learning the ins and outs of tools like Trello, Asana, or Notion.
Throughout the remote onboarding process, the key is to remember that becoming part of a new team isn’t something that happens overnight. That’s why onboarding is a process, not an isolated, one-time event.
In general, the remote onboarding process can be broken down into 4 major stages; pre-onboarding, first days, first weeks, and ongoing team-building.
Here’s an overview of each, along with a checklist of ideas for making the most of each stage.
It might sound counterintuitive, but onboarding should start well before a new hire’s first day.
This stage is all about making sure everything’s in place and ready to go, so new team members feel supported from the very first time they sign on.
Remote pre-onboarding ideas
- Set up important work accounts and tools like email, Slack, and Google Drive. This includes collecting the information needed to do so before the new hire gets started.
- Plan out a schedule and some key tasks for the hire’s first days and weeks. This can help soothe nerves and remove uncertainty.
- Make plans to personally welcome the new hire, such as an informal group or one-on-one Zoom hangout.
First days on the job
A new hire’s first days on the job should be structured, but not overwhelming. The idea is that they’re never unsure about what to do, but don’t feel stressed or in over their head.
At this stage of the remote onboarding process, aim for clear communication, plenty of education, and easing into a daily routine.
Remote first-days ideas
- Roll out the welcome meetings or team-building sessions planned earlier.
- Hold virtual tours and tutorials for the tools used to get work done.
- Schedule a meeting to share the hire’s upcoming schedule and first tasks.
- Prepare a few assignments to give the hire a taste of what they’ll be doing day-to-day.
First weeks on the job
After a few days on their new team, employees will be ready to start getting work done.
But that doesn’t mean the onboarding process is over. At this stage, it’s important to make sure new hires know they don’t need to be 100% settled in yet, and support is still available for whatever they need.
Remote first-weeks ideas
- Hold regular check-ins, to give new hires a chance to raise questions or concerns.
- Review important base knowledge or company policies.
- Look over first assignments and assess performance, to reassure the new hire they’re on the right track or offer gentle suggestions if needed.
This final stage includes team-building, relationship-building, mentorship, and performance reviews.
Most teams already have these activities in place, but ideally, they should feel like a natural extension of the onboarding process. New employees should never feel like their onboarding has abruptly ended, and now they’re on their own.
Remote ongoing support ideas
- Team social hours, lunch and learns, and fun virtual events.
- Mentorship and career pathing meetings.
- Performance reviews.
- Employee satisfaction surveys and check-ins.
Remote onboarding: a welcome for all hires
Onboarding is the first step in creating strong, engaged, and productive teams. That was true well before the remote-work revolution, and it’s still true today.
Remote or not, onboarding is all about support, relationship-building, and education. If managers keep those principles in mind as they hire and train employees in our new virtual world, they can build teams that thrive no matter where in the world they’re working from.